On one level, Joseph Heller’s autobiography NOW AND THEN: FROM CONEY ISLAND TO HERE is two books in one. The first one hundred pages are a straightforward memoir of Heller’s pre-World War II childhood in Coney Island, New York. This section is a lengthy paean to the neighborhood and amusement parks of the era described in vivid detail but sketched in surprisingly ponderous narrative flow. Clearly, Heller enjoyed a primarily happy childhood, and as he notes in nearly every other paragraph, grew up in a largely crime-free environment.
Ironically, later in this extended home-movie, Heller notes one of his literary characteristics is his tendency to have slow starts before getting his fiction and nonfiction works moving. Midway through THEN AND NOW, both style and content do shift into an energetic pattern of memory fragments that enliven the pace and continually spark interest as Heller interweaves chronological events with subsequent moments in literary life, mixing anecdote with light descriptions of friendships and milestones in Heller’s career. In this section, Heller reveals steps in his writing developments that illuminate the craftsmanship behind CATCH-22 (1961), SOMETHING HAPPENED (1974), and Heller’s lesser accomplishments in American literature.
Despite the livelier tone and break up of overlong passages, Heller’s life is one more engaging in the living than the retelling. While many old friends are mentioned, none are memorable, and Heller is thin in his revealing of important emotional or philosophic milestones that would demonstrate more than a fortunate life without many pivotal or poignant moments.
The notable exception are his passages describing bombing flights in World War II that later influenced his first novel, CATCH-22, but even here Heller simply recounts events without providing context or perspective that would give these incidents meaning to someone other than the participants.
The latter chapters will be important for students of Heller who helpfully provides a fast inventory of his lesser-known publications and discusses his literary mentors, particularly William Saroyan and H.L. Mencken. Therefore, school and public libraries will want this volume for its reference uses, but few general readers without specific interest in Heller or the places and times he describes will find more than occasional well-developed scenes as rewards for working through this edition.